Published February 1, 2022
A student in UB’s summer research fellowship program, “Training the Next Generation of Physician-Scientists,” won the 2021 American Medical Association Research Challenge, emerging from more than 1,100 submissions to claim the grand prize of $10,000 in the largest national research competition among medical students, residents and fellows in the country.
Marielisa Cabrera-Sánchez, a second-year medical student from the University of Puerto Rico School of Medicine, submitted the winning research study, titled “Genomic Adaptation of Moraxella catarrhalis During Persistence in the Airways of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) Patients.”
She was one of eight students who participated in the training program that is funded by a National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases grant awarded to Timothy F. Murphy, MD, senior associate dean for clinical and translational research.
The overall goal of the nine-week training program is to attract talented and motivated medical students into careers as physician-scientists by offering career and research development experience.
“Marielisa’s vital research accomplishments are a shining example of why UB’s summer research fellowship program exists,” says Allison Brashear, MD, UB’s vice president for health sciences and dean of the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. “At the Jacobs School, we are committed to developing the next generation of academic physicians, which is crucial to the future of advancing medical research in our country.”
“I am so pleased this program’s expert mentoring is encouraging aspiring physician-scientists to pursue careers in research,” she adds. “This is one of the many ways that the Jacobs School is contributing to the health of our community.”
Cabrera-Sánchez was originally scheduled to travel to Buffalo in the summer of 2021 to work in the lab of Murphy, a SUNY Distinguished Professor of medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases, but due to uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic it was decided that making the trip was unwise.
“We pivoted and designed a remote project which she did a great job with,” Murphy says. “Her project involved bioinformatics analysis of the genomes of bacteria from COPD patients as part of my NIH grant.”
Murphy says Cabrera-Sánchez also worked with his colleague, Hervé Tettelin, PhD, a leading expert in bioinformatics and microbial genomics, and a professor of microbiology and immunology at the Institute for Genome Sciences at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
“Many elements went into this exciting outcome,” Murphy says. “First of all, Marielisa is an outstanding student who learned sophisticated new bioinformatics tools quickly and showed a most impressive work ethic to accomplish a large body of work in nine weeks.”
He says his collaborator and co-mentor, Tettelin, “is a gifted teacher who guided Marielisa through the bioinformatics analyses starting from square one.”
“This turned out to be a great remote project as a collaboration across three institutions,” Murphy adds. “Keys to the project’s success were the impressive determination and rapid learning of new skills by Marielisa and Dr. Tettelin’s inspiring ability to mentor and teach bioinformatics to analyze bacterial genomes.”
He notes that UB’s summer research fellowship program provided a supportive research environment, didactic sessions by accomplished faculty, an excellent peer group of Jacobs School medical students and challenging research projects designed to achieve novel observations in a nine-week fellowship.
“This exciting outcome tells me that our training programs at UB are on a par with the best programs in the country,” Murphy says.
Her mentors say Cabrera-Sánchez singlehandedly implemented bioinformatics analyses to identity novel changes in surface antigens of Moraxella catarrhalis (M. catarrhalis) during bacterial persistence in the lungs of COPD patients, informing ongoing and future vaccine development efforts.
“It has been a most rewarding experience remotely mentoring Marielisa. She embraced the challenge of big genomics data bioinformatics with ease and remarkable dedication, making novel discoveries that set the path for potential new therapeutics against COPD,” Tettelin says. “These results, combined with her exemplary data integration and presentation skills, set a distinguished paper.”
Cabrera-Sánchez says her research involved looking at the genomes of M. catarrhalis to try and determine how it adapts and persists in COPD patients.
“We hypothesized that it was changing its genome. And so using a variety of bioinformatic tools, we decided to look at the genomes of more than 150 isolates of M. catarrhalis, which is a lot of data if you think about it,” she says. “And we were seeing what were the alterations that were occurring. And we were able to identify specifically which genes and which mutations were occurring.”
“When you are looking for ways of designing therapeutics and also vaccines, you need to know what is happening with these pathogens that you are designing a vaccine to combat. You need to know what is happening at a molecular level and that is where my project comes in,” Cabrera-Sánchez says. “It shines a light as to what is happening and which antigens should be taken into consideration with designing a vaccine and therefore helping COPD patients.”
Cabrera-Sánchez says despite the fact her research topic was quite dense and she had no prior experience in bioinformatics research, the project was very successful because both her mentors were extremely accessible.
“Both Dr. Murphy and Dr. Tettelin were very available, to not only help me get acquainted with the programs, the algorithms and the computer language that we were using for our project, but they were also available whenever I got stuck in a specific code,” she says. “Or if I needed help constructing a code to do what I wanted to accomplish, they were definitely available by phone or by video conference.”
More than 1,100 research poster abstracts were submitted to the virtual event and 800 researchers were chosen to present posters. A semifinal round featured 50 presenters with the top-scored research giving 2-minute presentations on their studies. From that group, five finalists were each chosen to give a 5-minute presentation.
The AMA Research Challenge judges spoke about the sophistication of Cabrera-Sánchez’s research, her understanding of the genomic tools that she employed and the quality of her mentoring, noting her research is part of work that will help identify new therapies and vaccines for bacterial infection in COPD.
One judge commented: “The investigator did a brilliant job of synthesizing the research and presenting it clearly. For someone so early in their research career, I walk away with this sense of great potential for an eruptive future of terrific discoveries.”
Murphy says Cabrera-Sánchez’s win is also evidence that great success can be achieved through remote learning projects.
“Marielisa’s project was conducted entirely remotely, providing clear evidence that complex projects can be successful in a remote venue,” he says.
“Hervé, Marielisa and I spent many hours on Zoom together working on the project and working toward preparing her poster and oral presentations for the AMA Research Challenge,” Murphy adds. “The most memorable is when the three of us were on Zoom the evening Marielisa was declared the overall winner!”